So, you're involved in a lawsuit that's been filed in the Washington small claims court, and it's getting near the time to go trial and have a judge decide who wins. Other than documents and papers like receipts, canceled checks, and repair estimates, what can you do to help make sure you're on the winning side? Witnesses can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Whether you're the one who filed the suit (the "plaintiff") or the person being sued (the "defendant"), you're allowed to bring witnesses with you help support your version of the case. Basically, witnesses are people who saw or heard something about the case. Or, they're "experts" who help explain something technical about a claim involved in the case.
Your witnesses need to have something meaningful to offer to the case. Otherwise, you run the risk of aggravating the judge for wasting her time and the court's time. So, be certain that your witnesses have personal knowledge about your case; they saw or heard something, like saw the car accident you're suing over. Or, if you need an expert, make sure he's qualified to talk about the case. For example, a mechanic is qualified to talk about faulty car repairs involved in a suit, but your friend who's a car salesmen probably isn't a good choice for such testimony.
Also, make sure you talk to your witnesses before you show up for trial. You want to make sure that your witnesses will support your version of the story. And, you want to make sure that the witness remembers important facts in the same way as you do. If a potential witness doesn't help your case, don't use her.
For example, a witness may have seen the collision between your car and the defendant's car, but may not be able to say how fast either of you were driving or if you stopped completely at a stop sign before the accident. You may not want this witness to testify.
An expert witness has education, training, skills or experience that makes her more knowledgeable about a particular subject than the average person. Expert witnesses are used to explain technical or complicated matters so that ordinary people or "laypersons" can understand them better.
Examples of possible expert witnesses are:
- Automobile mechanics and body workers
- Construction professionals, like carpenters, roofers and general contractors
- Doctors, such as your family physician or chiropractor
- Computer or information technology (IT) professionals
In most cases you'll have to pay an expert for her testimony. The expert may either prepare a written report that you may use as evidence, or she may testify in person at trial. Usually, an expert will charge much more to testify in person.
Testifying without Being There
In Washington, if a witness can't make it trial or it will cost you too much to have the witness testify live at trial, such as with an expert, for example, then you may use a written statement or report from the witness at trial. The statement should be in the form of an affidavit. This simply means that the statement was made under oath, or "notarized." Usually, a statement that is merely signed by the witness won't be good enough, and the judge won't even look at it.
If you plan on using an affidavit from a witness, you need to make sure a copy of it delivered to (or "served on") the other party at least five days before the trial. You can have it delivered like any other court paper, and use a deputy sheriff, a process server or registered or certified mail. The district court clerk can help you figure out a way to have it served. If you're planning on using an affidavit to answer or respond to the other party's affidavit, you may bring it and a copy for the other party to trial. That is, there's no need to serve it on the other party before trial.
Before trial, you should ask the court clerk about how the judges in your area usually handle requests to let witnesses testify without being present at trial.
A subpoena is a court order commanding someone to appear at court on a certain date and at a certain time and give testimony about something. In Washington, you can't use a subpoena to force a witness to testify for you at trial.
In most cases, the plaintiff will give her evidence first, including testimony from her witnesses. The defendant will go second. During the trial, the judge usually asks the witnesses questions, and each party can question the other's witnesses.
It's important that you don't interrupt the witnesses, even if you think the witness is wrong or even lying. Make notes about the discrepancies. Later, you can either ask the witness about the discrepancy or use your own witnesses to set the matter straight.
You may interrupt a witness, however, when you have a valid objection to what he's saying. An "objection" means that the witness is testifying about something that he shouldn't be. Good examples are when a witness:
- Doesn't have direct, personal knowledge about what he's testifying about. For example, a passenger in car who didn't actually see the collision is asked to testify about how fast the defendant's car was moving
- Relies on hearsay, which is when the witness testifies about something he heard someone say and that person isn't a witness at trial. For example, when a witness is asked to testify about what a passerby said just after a car accident
Questions for Your Attorney
- I was sued in small claims court and at trial, one of my witnesses changed his story and the plaintiff won. Is there anything I can do?
- If I win, will the other party have to pay for my expert witness fees?
- Should I bring "character" witnesses to trial to testify about my good nature and how I take care of my personal responsibilities?
Related Resources on Lawyers.comsm
- Start the process with our Washington Small Claims Worksheet
- Next in the Small Claims series: After Small Claims Courts in Washington
- Success In Small Claims Court
- Small Claims Court Terms
- Defending a Small Claims Court Case
- Visit our Small Claims Court Forum for more help